10902: The Earshader Bard

The Earshader Bard

John Smith, the Earshader Bard was born in 1848. He is known locally as Shonnie Phadruig. He was illegitimate, his father being Peter Smith a son of the tacksman of West Earshader – Farquar Smith. His mother was Jessie Macdonald of Druim a Gharraidh, now part of Hacklete in Bernera.

As was common in those days, a son born out of wedlock was taken by the father, so after he was weaned, Shonnie was taken from his mother to a bothy across the water from her, where he was looked after by a nursemaid. She was Margaret Macleod ‘Mairead an Oig’ from Inacleit in Uig. She may well have been a connection of Peter Smith, but that information has been lost. She was certainly buried in the Smith plot in the cemetery on Little Bernera, where Shonnie was also eventually laid to rest. She was very well thought of, probably because of her care for Shonnie to whom she was devoted.

Jessie, Shonnie’s mother, was heartbroken when they took her son from her; to have cared for him until he was weaned and then to lose him must have been very hard for her, especially as he was so near that she could hear his crying across the water. She would go down to the shore every day, and at very low tide she could almost have walked across the channel to reach him.

She emigrated to Canada in the 1850’s, and it is thought that her passage was paid by the Smith family. Just before she left she went to a house in Earshader with a parcel for the boy. They took her to the fence dividing the tenants from the farm and near to the bothy where Shonnie was housed. She saw her son for the last time and it must have been agony for her. It is said that in the parcel was a small kilt that she herself had made for the child. There are differing stories of what happened to her thereafter. Some say that she died soon after she arrived in Canada of a broken heart, others that she was on her way back home and died on the way. Whatever the truth, it was a sad life and an illustration of what could happen to a young woman in her situation.

Shonnie was a bright child and gained admission to the ‘Sgoil nan Leddies’ in Stornoway. He must have received basic education at home. There are people at various dates in the Census returns before the Education Act of 1888 who are described as Gaelic Teachers. Education then was very sporadic with different sponsors such as the SSPCK and the Gaelic Ladies Society. The latter funded the ‘Sgoil nan Leddies’ in Stornoway. How children were admitted to the school is unclear, but with the tacksman connection Shonnie would have had an advantage, although he would certainly have needed to be clever enough to make use of this chance. He went on to University in Edinburgh where he studied medicine and was named best Latin scholar of his year. However in his last year he fell ill with tuberculosis, a common and fatal sickness then. By this time his father was dead. He had to give up his studies and return home where he stayed with his uncle – his mother’s brother – in Crulivig, until he died on December 27 1880, at the tragically early age of 32 years.

He used his small notebook with notes from his medical studies to write down his bardachd. Several of his poems have been lost, but were known by heart by some of his contemporaries and their descendants. Unfortunately, no-one thought to write them down and they are now gone for ever. Although even in translation his genius can be appreciated, it is in Gaelic that the full flavour of his brilliant mind and command of his native language becomes apparent. The content of the poems is profound and utterly without bitterness, which is amazing when you consider the many trials of his short life.

His manuscript is housed in the Bernera Museum.

Record Type:
Story, Report or Tradition
Type Of Story Report Tradition:
Newspaper Article
Record Maintained by:

Related Media

John Smith Manuscript

John Smith Manuscript

Portrait of John Smith, the Earshader bard

Portrait of John Smith, the Earshader bard